Aristocratic men of the first half of the eighteenth century have been described as exotic birds, wearing brightly coloured garments made with delicate fabrics. This luxurious splendour, however, had fallen out of favour in England by the 1760s to be replaced by a new aristocratic aesthetic theory that simplicity was beautiful. The growing feeling that pomp and glitter were vulgar was linked to a fear of the effeminising effect that luxury had on England’s men. Modesty became a new means of social distinction, as less became more.
From the 1750s, coats were simplified as stiffened pleats declined and moved to the back. Similarly, fabrics moved away from brightly patterned silks to woollen cloth. The bold prints and embroidery of former years had disappeared, remaining only for more formal evening and court wear. These new styles were largely inspired by military, sporting and country life images, all activities that imbued masculinity.
Receipts from York tailor and drapers, Tasker & Routh, reveal Lord Fairfax purchasing several three-piece suits between 1759 and 1760, all made of plain but rich-coloured woollen cloth of scarlet and crimson. To retain the distinction of rank, these suits were made of Superfine, the most luxurious form of woollen cloth, and trimmed with silk and gold lace. The new fashionable, aristocratic man understood the importance of balance. Too much luxury would be vulgar, too little refinement, dangerously rustic.
In striking contrast to the modest aristocrat that Lord Fairfax embodied was the Macaronis. These young men tended to be rich, young and fresh from their Grand Tour of Europe where they had first tasted the pasta dish they were named after. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, the Macaroni fashion was largely based on European models but wildly over exaggerated. It consisted of sumptuous fabrics of vivid patterns, large buttons and tall wigs with tiny hats on top. Macaronis also wore striped stockings to further emphasise their tall, lean figures. Unsurprisingly, these fops were mercilessly ridiculed in popular print media, portrayed in caricatures as excessively narcissistic and feminine.
This last ditch attempt to reintroduce brightly coloured, highly decorative clothing into men’s fashions was, however, short lived. The new simplicity of aristocratic men’s clothing was here to stay.